Attacking the gold monetary standard in favor of bimetallism, Bryan defended Western farmers and the “common man” against banks and the wealth of the Eastern United States.
U.S. representative William Jennings
Speaking directly to the romantic pastoral sentiments of his audience, Bryan praised the pioneers of the American West, who lived close to nature, unlike city dwellers and Eastern bankers. In monetary policy, he asserted that Americans should be leaders in bimetallism rather than abject followers of Great Britain and other nations. Bryan brought his address to a rousing conclusion, with a statement that would always thereafter be associated with him: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The speech catapulted Bryan, a thirty-six-year-old congressman, into national prominence. After hearing it, the party chose him as its presidential candidate in 1896. It thereby committed itself to incorporating bimetallism as a key plank in its platform, shaping the national debate on the gold standard.
Bryan would run for the presidency unsuccessfully three times and serve as Woodrow Wilson’s first secretary of state. He remained a national figure until his death in 1925. His later defense of religious fundamentalism and his participation in the Scopes trial at the end of his life, when his powers were diminished, tarnished his reputation. However, with his resonant voice, impeccable diction, and ability to turn a memorable phrase, he is remembered as both “the American Cicero” and “the Great Commoner.”
Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Knopf, 2006. Leinward, Gerald. William Jennings Bryan: An Uncertain Trumpet. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006. Springen, Donald K. William Jennings Bryan: Orator of Small-Town America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
American Bimetallic League national convention
Coin’s Financial School
Klondike gold rush
Federal monetary policy